The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno: A Novel

( 23 )

Overview

Bartholomew Fortuno, the World’s Thinnest Man, believes that his unusual body is a gift. Hired by none other than P.T. Barnum to work at his spectacular American Museum—a modern marvel of macabre displays and live performances by Barnum’s cast of freaks and oddities—Fortuno has reached the pinnacle of his career. But after a decade of solid performance, he finds his contentment flagging. When a carriage pulls up outside the Museum in the dead of night, bearing Barnum and a mysterious veiled woman—rumored to be a ...

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Overview

Bartholomew Fortuno, the World’s Thinnest Man, believes that his unusual body is a gift. Hired by none other than P.T. Barnum to work at his spectacular American Museum—a modern marvel of macabre displays and live performances by Barnum’s cast of freaks and oddities—Fortuno has reached the pinnacle of his career. But after a decade of solid performance, he finds his contentment flagging. When a carriage pulls up outside the Museum in the dead of night, bearing Barnum and a mysterious veiled woman—rumored to be a new performer—Fortuno’s curiosity is piqued. And when Barnum asks Fortuno to follow her and report back on her whereabouts, his world is turned upsidedown. Why is Barnum so obsessed with this woman? Who is she, really? And why has she taken such a hold of the hearts of those around her?

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is a moving novelabout human appetites and longings. With pitch-perfect prose, Ellen Bryson explores what it means to be profoundly unique— and the power of love to transcend even the greatest divisions.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Inspired by a vintage circus photograph, Bryson’s first novel tells the fictional story of the unusual relationship between two human curiosities from P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Bartholomew Fortuno, the world’s thinnest man, is asked by Barnum to keep an eye on his latest acquisition—Iell Adams, the bearded woman, who is kept in seclusion until the impresario can introduce her to the world. Fascinated by her and desiring a transformative experience, Bartholomew falls hopelessly in love with Iell, much to the surprise of his fellow Curiosities. Bartholomew also gets caught in the middle of a war between Barnum and his jealous wife for control of Iell’s future. The story culminates at Barnum’s birthday party, where Bartholomew is shocked to discover Iell’s big secret. Though thin on plot, this work sympathetically conjures up the backstage world of Barnum’s museum and the pecking order of his Curiosities, and magically transports the reader back in time to Gilded Age New York. Fans of Water for Elephants are sure to want to enter this wondrous midway attraction of a novel. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
A man living among the oddest specimens of humanity questions his inner desires. It must have been something, America at the end of the Civil War, and debut novelist Bryson imagines it beautifully in her inspired drama about freaks, showmen and the forces that twist our insides. Opening just after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the curtains part to reveal a sideshow within a spectacle, namely the singular attraction that was Barnum's American Museum in New York City, owned by narcissistic showman P.T. Barnum. Bryson's narrator is no mundane manifestation: The titular Fortuno has occupied Barnum's stable as The World's Thinnest Man for a decade, playing alongside his gargantuan friend Matina and a host of other "Curiosities." Fortuno even elucidates the class system among "our kind," cataloguing True Prodigies that diverge inexorably from humanity; Prodigies, like himself, gifted with implausible proportions; and Exotics whose talents accent their peculiarities. "Lowlifes to codfish aristocrats, they're all alike," Matina scoffs. "People want to feel shock, envy, and delight. They just use us to fill them up. Which, by the way, is an impossible task." But Bartholomew is a wonderful character who doesn't struggle against his self-image but revels in it, challenging audiences with his bravado. "When you look at me, can't you understand yourself a bit better?" he asks. "The only difference between us is that I do not hide my inner self." Into this heady stew Bryson pours both mystery and a love story. Fortuno's curiosity is piqued late one evening when his master furtively escorts a veiled woman into the palace of marvels. Soon after, tempted by the lure of a new costume, Bartholomew agrees to conspire with his manipulative employer, venturing into Chinatown on secret missions and following Iell, the veiled woman, whose secrets may be the most startling of all her brethren. A rich tapestry of romance, illusory science, criminal trickery and human intrigue. Let the show begin. Reading group guide available. Agent: Mollie Glick/Foundry Literary + Media
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312577124
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 6/7/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

ELLEN BRYSON holds a BA in English from Columbia University and an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. Formerly a modern dancer, she lives in Southern California. This is her first novel.

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Reading Group Guide

Bartholomew Fortuno, the World’s Thinnest Man, believes that his unusual body is a gift. Hired by none other than P.T. Barnum to work at his spectacular American Museum—a modern marvel of macabre displays and live performances by Barnum’s cast of freaks and oddities—Fortuno has reached the pinnacle of his career. But after a decade of solid performance, he finds his contentment flagging. When a carriage pulls up outside the Museum in the dead of night, bearing Barnum and a mysterious veiled woman—rumored to be a new performer—Fortuno’s curiosity is piqued. And when Barnum asks Fortuno to follow her and report back on her whereabouts, his world is turned upsidedown. Why is Barnum so obsessed with this woman? Who is she, really? And why has she taken such a hold of the hearts of those around her?

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is a moving novelabout human appetites and longings. With pitch-perfect prose, Ellen Bryson explores what it means to be profoundly unique— and the power of love to transcend even the greatest divisions.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 23 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(4)

4 Star

(10)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2012

    Excellent story. I look forward to reading other stories by Ell

    Excellent story.

    I look forward to reading other stories by Ellen Bryson in the future.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2012

    Fun historical fiction

    Didnt get very deep but I enjoy turn of the century new York. Good story.

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  • Posted April 21, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A Lovely Book

    The Transformation Of Barthlomew Fortuno takes the reader inside the lives of the men and women who made up P.T. Barnum's 'Curiosities'. Barthlomew is The Thinnest Man Alive; there is Martina the Fat Lady, Ricardo the Rubber Man, Emma and Alley the giants and many others. As the book opens, a new act has arrived; Iall, a gorgeous woman with flowing red hair and a flowing beard to match.

    Barthlomew is instantly entranced. He is determined to win Iall's heart. But there are many obstacles in his way. Barnum is not interested in his acts falling in love, and furthermore, seems to be interested in Iall himself. Mrs. Barnum, who controls the pursestrings, is interested in moving Iall to a new location where her husband will not be tempted. Barthlomew must decide if he is willing to take on his employers, on whom he depends for his livelihood, in order to win his heart's desire.

    This is a lovely book. There is enough historical detail to transport the reader back to New York City in the 1860's, and it all rings true. But the novel is about much more than just a nostalgic look backward. It forces the reader to think about the different types of control in each person's life. The acts are controlled by their physical characteristics and by the determination of others to make money from their differences. Some of the acts like Barthlomew and Martina have made themselves into curiosities by controlling themselves; in Barthlomew's case by controlling the small amount he eats and in Martina's by controlling the enormous amounts she consumes. There is the question about free will and how much an individual truly is in control of their own life. This book is recommended for all readers. Those who read it will ponder the questions raised long after the last page is finished. This is Bryson's debut novel, and readers will eagerly await her next one.

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  • Posted October 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Freakin' good!

    Great story and fascinating characters. Worthy peer of 'Water for Elephants'. Barthy is a splendid protagonist and I loved his mysterious 'transformation'.

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  • Posted August 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Historical fiction debut

    The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno is Ellen Bryson's debut novel.

    Bartholomew Fortuno works for showman P. T. Barnum at his American Museum in New York in 1865. He is billed as the world's thinnest man. He lives and works alongside a host of other 'Curiosities', including a rubber man, a strong man, Marina the fat woman, with whom he shares a close friendship and many more. Bartholomew is content with his life and sharing what he calls 'his gift' with the paying public. To Marina he says;

    "We teach the world. You know how I feel about this. Nothing in the world comes close to our artistry. To manifest ideals through the body! Your abundance. Alley's strength. My clarity. Why, it's as godlike as one can become."

    "There is but one thing certain. No matter when we've received our gifts, we've all been blessed. Our uniqueness alone is enough to justify our special place in the world. But even more, our destiny insists we use our gifts the show others who they really are or show them what, in an ideal world , they could become. It may shock them at first, but, deep down, we open their eyes to greater possibilities."

    Bartholomew's ordered life and the family atmosphere of the Museum (the attractions live there as well) are thrown into disarray by the arrival of a mysterious new Curiosity. Barty catches a glimpse of her, but Barnum seems determined to keep her separated from the others. That little glimpse is enough to enthrall Bartholomew. His interactions with the mysterious Iell challenge his beliefs.

    "Now here I would disagree. I do not believe we educate our audiences. I believe we frighten them and, in doing so, make them feel better about the dullness of their own lives. We don't open their eyes, Mr. Fortuno, we give them permission to keep them shut...Are we not the nightmare? The gargoyles at the edge of their world?"

    Bryson has taken a fascinating piece of history and brought it to life. We've all had a glimpse of 'curiosities', both past and present. But Bryson brings a sense of humanity to the inhabitants of the Museum. Rather than being an exhibit, they come to life, infused with feelings, emotions, needs and wants. I liked Bartholomew very much as a character. His prim, proper ways, tempered with his burgeoning desire for more endeared him to me. Fleeting references to his past and his 'gift' heighten our desire to know more and serve to fuel his own enlightenment.

    Bartholomew's transformation - his journey to step outside the carefully chosen confines he lives in is an emotionally charged story that kept me enthralled from first page to last. Those looking for a fast paced read will not find it here. Rather, the speed of the book matches Bartholomew's emerging edification.

    An impressive debut. I look forward to reading what Bryson next sets her pen to. Fans of Sara Gruen would enjoy this novel

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  • Posted July 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Great read

    I was a huge fan of Water for Elephants and so when I saw this new title and read the inside cover I was very intrigued. The book really delivers a fascinating story of a group of "curiosities" living and working in Barnum's Museum. I could hardly put it down and would recommend to all!

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  • Posted June 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Journey for True Self

    This book had me interested in what was going on right up to the end of the book. The main character and narrator, Bartholomew Fortuno believes that his extreme thinness as a gift, one that elevates him above the masses of "normal" people. His sense of who he is and how he has become so thin is a sense of pride for Bartholomew and it is reinforced by the reactions of the audience. When he meets another fellow performer, a new act in Barnum's museum, he finds his world changing. He starts to question things he never thought he'd ever question. So certain as he was to his world and the world around him. As he starts to venture outside his comfort zone, his perceptions start to change. As his perceptions change, his world starts to transform. Instead of gifts he sees the world is really of our own making. He also sees that the world changes no matter how hard we try to make our own world stagnant.

    The mysteries of the self of each of the players in this book have you guessing as to who is hiding what and who is loyal to whom all set in a place that is at once open to the "normal" as it is closed. The climax of the book is not without it's surprises and it is quite shocking. The book in itself is a show and one that is well done and deserves it's own applause. The transformation is not of just one character, but of many. I recommend this book and give it 4 stars. This is one show you are invited to really know the characters.

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  • Posted June 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Beautiful and strange

    I like books that are a little strange, out of the ordinary. Here there is no magic or things like that. But the characters in this book, it is those that are out of the ordinary.

    Bartholomew (let's just call him Bart cos I will never be able to spell that) lives in New York and is apart of P.T Barnum's museum. He sits in a room or he is on stage showing how freakishly thin he is. People come to marvel at him and be disgusted. He has his friends among fellow "freaks" but one day he is awakened and nothing will be the same.

    I was not sure if I liked Bart at first, he is such a proud man. He is something special, and he wants to teach people about how things are. He also looks down upon fellow freaks. He is the highest up, natural born curiosities of nature. Then there are the exotic ones, and lowest are the gaffs. People who fake their freakish nature, like the woman who gave birth to dead babyrats. But underneath it all he is human, and he does struggle with things and that is what I learn after reading a while.

    His friends at the place is the fat lady Matina, with whom he has a special bond and they are good friends. Emma, the giant, the rubberman, Alley the strong man, and others that come and go. Like the new act, a woman in a veil and Bart becomes fascinated by her. Who is she? What is her relationship with Bartum? The more he wants to know the deeper he falls. There are many powers of will at this museum. Who the veiled lady is, that you have to find out for yourself.

    What was it then that caught my interest? I do feel that it was Bryson's language, it just flowed, what else can I say, she is a great author and because of how she wrote this book I would love to read more by her. She wove a fantastic story, that in reality was just plain truth. But it felt like so much more. The freaks made this story, normal humans that in some cases were made into something else, or just were different. It was a story of friendship, love and most importantly finding yourself. Because in the end Bart is a lost soul.

    That people actually paid to see these persons is rather horrifying, after reading for some time I forgot about that and was just swept away by the story. But now when thinking about it, then I am again struck by it. And some of these not normal people, were just that, perfectly normal with a little make-up on.

    A fascinating tale about a "freakshow" at the time of Lincoln's assassination, New York in a different era. The perfect setting to this story. This is the author's first novel, and she had done well. I am sure we will hear more from her in the future.

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  • Posted June 18, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A Beautifully Atmospheric Novel

    When we first meet Bartholomew Fortuno, he is looking down at a mysterious new arrival to the Barnum's American Museum. Nobody knows who she is or where she comes from, but Barnum is going to great lengths to hide her presence until it is time for her debut. When it comes, it shakes up many of the lives within the Museum, for the new woman is Iell, a beautiful bearded lady. No stranger to curiosities of nature (Bartholomew is the World's Thinnest Man) he takes instantly to the exotic allure of Iell, who turns his world upside down. When the Museum begins to suffer small acts of vandalism, everyone is a suspect. Bartholomew must rely on his instincts to sort through the secrets and temptations, and will end up learning about himself along the way.

    Those who know me will tell you that few literary topics please me more than circus stories, so it will certainly not be surprising to them that I was completely absorbed in Bartholomew's story. My favorite part of this book was how utterly atmospheric is was. Bryson captured nineteenth century New York City and circus life beautifully. I loved the glimpse into the social life and living style of Barnum's circus sideshow acts. Bartholomew is sometimes philosophical, sometimes naive man, and it was frustrating for me to be stuck with only what he knew. I wanted to get inside the heads of other characters! The mystery of Iell and added trouble of Mrs. Barnum kept me turning pages late into the night. The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno was a very pleasurable read that is sure to appeal to fans of Water for Elephants.

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